What’s In A Name?
The Native Americans, who called this land home for thousands of years before the first English or European settler had arrived, named the river “Yeocomico”— which means—“tossed to and fro by waters.” It can also mean, according to Lynn Norris, “four dwelling places,” which is an Algonquin reference to the multiple branches of the river. Each of them had Indian villages established
Early immigrant locals knew Kinsale as Ceann Saille— an Irish phrase that translates to “head of salt water.”
Could it have been an early settler, homesick traveler, naval officer, merchant marine or indentured servant who first uttered the name of an Irish port town, across the Atlantic, upon seeing this deep and captivating harbor? Our imagination and natural tendency to ponder this question only adds to the intrigue that
Waterways and By-ways
Waterways in and around Kinsale include the West Yeocomico River, Kinsale Branch, Hampton Hall Branch and Bailey’s Mill Creek. Today, the main roads leading in and out of Kinsale are Routes 202 and 203, on Virginia’s scenic Northern Neck.
From Kinsale one can look across the Yeocomico, towards the Potomac River and on to Maryland, in the distance. Pristine marshes, tidal waterways and lush fields in cultivation mark the road to Kinsale.
Kinsale was a natural choice for the type of deep-water harbor required for the seagoing and trans-Atlantic sailing ships that carried people and goods to and from England and other ports of call. The remote location of Kinsale’s harbor also provided shelter and repose from the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast. For this reason Kinsale became a bustling and successful port of call in an otherwise secluded and unlikely location. The same sheltered and remote location that made her a coveted business location and port of call in days gone by has in part been the key to preserving so much of her vernacular charm, sense of community and classic Tidewater hospitality.
Kinsale’s history is worthy of remembering and protecting— so much so that the Kinsale Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Colonial Days in Kinsale
In 1667, the House of Burgesses ordered that a fort be built on the Yeocomico “for the defense of the Potomac” and in 1706 an order was also decreed that — a town “at Yehocomoco, called ‘Kingsale’ was to be established” with Markets held on Tuesdays and Fridays. A Fair was also to be held in October.
During the colonial period the “crown” and associated political powers vigorously promoted the establishment of port towns mainly for the purpose of government controlled trade and taxation.
The colonial export of tobacco from Kinsale and other ports was a “cash cow” to the English. The sovereign rulers in England were intent on taxing every known hogshead of exported tobacco and anything else that could possibly be taxed. In an effort to undermine the free enterprise and independence of America’s first agricultural entrepreneurs, a system of warehouses and wharfs was established, where all tobacco exports were to be graded and taxed under the watchful eye of the crown and her representatives in Virginia. The warehouses and customs houses were instituted as a way to make it more difficult for tobacco farmers, exporters and smugglers to go around the system. It seems that “nothing is new under the sun” and people have always sought ways to avoid excessive taxation. By 1712, the warehouse system was well established in colonial Virginia.
Although Kinsale was known as the official port town for Westmoreland County, the actual warehouses and shipping points were first at Sandy Point then Rusts and finally to Kinsale for good.
Kinsale’s “Great House”
One of the earliest known homes still remaining in Kinsale is known as the “Great House.” This historic landmark is sure to have witnessed some harrowing events in Kinsale’s maritime and civic history. Oh, if only walls could talk, what stories the Great House could tell us of treachery, valor, bravery, romance and intrigue. No historical novelist living today could possibly conceive a more intriguing history than that of Kinsale, although James Michener’s Chesapeake might come close.
The original Great House is said to have been built by Stephen Bailey in 1667. The gracious Tidewater planter’s house, at the waters edge, remained in the Bailey family until 1778. Subsequent owners included Catesby Jones and John James Maund of Baltimore who was appointed as “Superintendent over the colonial port at Yeocomico.”
The Great House was damaged during the war of 1812 during an intense and bloody military skirmish that became the stuff that legends are surely made of. The Bailey family regained ownership of the “Great House” in 1827 and rebuilt the portion of the home destroyed during the British–American engagement here. The Bailey family cemetery, located near the “Great House” is the final resting place for Bailey ancestors as well as prominent heroes and local legends.
The New Nationalism and the Re-establishment of Kinsale
It is recorded that in 1784, a town, named Kinsale, was again encouraged by an Act of the Virginia General Assembly. And so the Act stated that the town would be located “on land owned by Catesby Jones, in Westmoreland County.” It was further stated that Mr. Jones was to build a “convenient house” for the purpose of tobacco inspections, at his own expense. We don’t know all the details of this transaction but hopefully Mr. Jones was amply compensated for his trouble. The original town trustees were: Fleet Cox, Richard Lee, Walter Jones, John Tuberville, Hudson Muse, Richard Buckner and John Gordon.
In 1784 and later in 1788, one-half acre town lots were sold for the building of new homes that were to be sixteen feet square; constructed of stone or brick within a time limit of three years from the date of lot purchase. It seems that little has changed with regard to real estate through the years and the use of covenants and restrictions!
Surely a variety of housing, taverns, shops, shanties, stables and lodging existed and thrived, in Kinsale. With only a few exceptions, the homes, wharfs, plantations and businesses that were built and prospered during this time were burned, looted or destroyed by the English shelling and invasion that took place during the war of 1812.
Some Background on the War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a declared response to the Great Britain’s repeated assault on American shipping. It is sometimes called “the second war for American Independence.” Many people do not know that it was the United States that eventually declared war on Great Britain for their willful acts that were defiant of American sovereignty, exports and our rising status on the world stage.
In 1793 France declared war on Great Britain. After a brief end to their hostilities they were at it again in 1803. U.S. Ships were intent on remaining neutral during the war between France and Great Britain.
It was no picnic to serve in the Royal Navy as young men were often forced into service, for a variety of reasons. Hence, desertion was a widespread problem. With unabashed arrogance fueled by desperation and an “axe to grind,” Great Britain began the obnoxious practice of boarding neutral sea going vessels in search of alleged deserters.
As the years went by American anger and calls for action came to a head. In 1807 the British ship HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the American ship Chesapeake. During this ill-advised boarding four American seamen were abducted and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. As news spread throughout the nation a firestorm of anti-British sentiment was ignited, which fanned the flames of war.
As these unwarranted attacks became more commonplace, Thomas Jefferson instituted an embargo on overseas shipping which had devastating consequences for the fledgling American economy. Although his motivation was to protect Americans and our merchant fleet, the new nationalist pride of the United States called for a vigorous and forceful response to Great Britain’s aggression. Many Americans felt that Jefferson’s idea of embargo penalized American shipping interests and free trade, rather than deal with the issue at hand.
Jefferson was a truly great President and one of the most thoughtful and profound men, in any age. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s failed embargo produced an angry constituency…and so, the juxtaposed position of James Madison was ushered in with his first term as the fourth President of the United States of America.
Madison believed in peace through strength and fighting back. There is no way we can possibly imagine the turbulence in the American economy and outlook during this time. Like all good political candidates, incumbent President James Madison artfully made the potential
Declaration of War against Great Britain an issue during his re-election campaign. Madison won the election and as expected war was declared against Great Britain.
On the other side of this issue was the humiliated and strapped nation of Great Britain. Anxious to settle the score with the United States for their past humiliation and defeat at Yorktown, they were only too happy to undermine their former colony whenever possible.
It is our legacy to be independent minded lovers of freedom. It is our privilege to have been given these freedoms that we hold especially dear, which were purchased for us by those who paid the ultimate price. May we never forget the sacrifice of the men, women and even children who have died “in defense of liberty.”
The Stuff that Legends are made of—Midshipman James B. Sigourney
On the morning of July 14, 1813 a contingent of about 80 ships of the Royal Navy were stationed in the Chesapeake Bay region taking whatever means necessary to destroy U.S. merchant and naval ships in our areas rivers and the greater Chesapeake Bay region.
The inlets, tributaries and waterways of the Northern Neck were a routine target of British forces. They waged naval assaults; shelling, burning and pillaging the region’s villages, farms, plantations, wharfs, ports and towns.
Communities were burned to the ground, citizens murdered or abducted and food supplies (including livestock) confiscated for use by the British. Virtually anything of value was a target for them.
The USS ASP, an armed Schooner of the U.S. Navy, was a commercial vessel that had been up-fitted for naval service. Her main mission was reconnaissance. The ASP was officially placed into service on July 5, 1813.
The valiant commander the ASP was twenty-three year old mid-shipman James B. Sigourney, who possessed an extraordinary sense of honor and bravery. On this morning the USS Scorpion, a sloop of war and the USS ASP were attacked by British Naval forces and neither one stood a ghost of a chance against the speed and superior gunfire of the attacking ships.
The USS Scorpion, according to contingency plans, escaped into the bay to fight another day. The ASP headed for the sheltered harbor at Kinsale but was unable to out run the vessels in pursuit. With nowhere to go and unable to move swiftly enough or deploy his guns, the ASP was doomed. Bound by his sense of valor and un-wavering decision to fight to the death for his country, he refused to give up the ship.
Seriously wounded and bleeding from the British assault he remained on deck in an effort to support his remaining men and to stay with his ship ‘til the bitter end. The battle was lost from the outset as the ASP was no match for those firing upon her.
The British invaders boarded the ASP and brutally murdered Sigourney. With his body still remaining aboard ship, they set it on fire.
Fortunately, American forces were able to extinguish the flames and remove Sigourney’s body for a burial befitting his extraordinary service. With all of the “Honors of War” due him, Sigourney was buried in the Bailey family cemetery, in close proximity to the Great House at Kinsale. The inscription on his grave marker reads as follows:
Sacred to the Memory of Mid-shipman James B. Sigourney Of the United States Navy. A Native of Boston, Mass.
Age 23 Years. Who fell gallantly defending his Country’s Flag On Board of the United States Schooner ASP,
Under his command in action with five British Barges of very superior force On the 14th day of July 1813.
And so James Sigourney lives on in Kinsale lore with a street bearing his name and his ship’s cannon placed at the head of his grave. Although his body was eventually moved to Boston for burial with his family, his monument and place in Kinsale and U.S. Naval history will forever remain a testament to his extraordinary bravery and sense of duty to his nation.
Characters and Blockade Runners
In every age, Kinsale has had its share of intriguing characters and scoundrels known as blockade runners, which eventually led to numerous naval conflicts between Union and Confederate forces during the civil war.
Union forces were continually incensed by the flow of goods from northern sympathizers to the confederates. Kinsale played a pivotal role in the support of the confederate cause by Northern sympathizers who outwardly cursed the south but inwardly supported her.
The Union presence here, conducted periodic raids on the ports and towns in the Chesapeake Bay region, including Kinsale, in order to intercept and stop these under-cover shipments. It became such a problem that the shelling of some coastal towns was employed to demoralize and intimidate the local population and deter northern sympathizers. Due to its part in the practice of blockade running and the illegal trafficking of weapons, goods, and food supplies to the South— much of Kinsale was burned. The Union employed any means necessary to deter what they considered an act of willful defiance.
And so Kinsale—decimated by two wars—victoriously emerged again as a hub of shipping and transportation with the advent and expansion of the steamboat era on the Chesapeake Bay.
The Golden Age of Steamboat Travel
Steamboat travel began on the Chesapeake Bay in the early 1820s and continued until the construction of bridges and an improved road system made them virtually obsolete. My own sense of nostalgia often wonders what those days must have been like. Something tells me that they were not nearly as lovely as I would like to imagine.
Steamboats made weekly trips from Baltimore to Kinsale and other deep-water ports and wharfs along the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay region. It was an exciting change of pace for travelers in Kinsale and the entire Bay region. The characteristic black smoke that puffed from the Steamboat’s tall stacks made them visible for miles.
Each landing and departure was an event in Kinsale and everywhere that the steamboats landed. Honeymooners, shoppers, businessmen, vacationers and those seeking entertainment were welcomed aboard in style for their junket to Norfolk, Baltimore and other ports of call. Truly Kinsale was more closely connected with Baltimore than with Richmond, as travel by water was most accessible and affordable.
For the most part, passengers had everything they could need or want aboard these floating hotels. Photos from the past reveal well-appointed suites, opulent dining rooms and multiple grades of travel. There was something for everyone and jobs for those with adventurous spirits.
Local farmers and entrepreneurs were able to transport their crops, livestock and products to broader markets. The iconic steamboat became a vital fixture on America’s waterways.
James Adams Floating Theatre
One of the most innovative and anticipated icons of the steamboat era was the James Adams Floating Theatre. Adams brilliantly took entertainment to the masses that were not able to partake of it otherwise. Although there were imitators—none endured or provided the entertainment quality of the original “Showboat”!
With road travel still logistically difficult for many, particularly in the remote regions of the Northern Neck and Bay region, the James Adams Floating Theatre offered a fantastic diversion and full line-up of professional talent for six nights. Kinsale was one of the annual ports of call.
It is said that when the Adams Theatre pulled up to the dock the orchestra was dispatched to travel up and down the waterways of the surrounding countryside, announcing that the floating theatre was back in town. For 25 cents per customer the floating theatre entertained its patrons who gleefully drank in the fun.
From 1914 to 1941 the Adams theatre plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay region and North Carolina Coastal areas. Although the theatre was destroyed long ago, she lives on in the vivid recollections of those who attended her shows so many years ago, as children.
The James Adams Floating Theatre was the subject of Edna Ferber’s wildly successful novel Showboat, which inspired the still renowned Broadway musical of the very same name. Several film versions were also produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, including the 1936 film with Irene Dunne and the 1951 version with ever stunning and unforgettable Ava Gardner.
Of course it was the lovely and dark haired Miss Beulah Adams who was the real star of the show aboard the original Showboat. A photo of “Miss Beulah” taken during the peak of her career in the 1920s hangs in the Kinsale Museum. She remained with the theatre company until 1936. The vast Historic Kinsale photo collection housed on disk and also on display in the museum was made possible by generous contributions from the community at large and grants awards.
Although Kinsale experienced its most dynamic commercial growth during the first half of the 20th century due, to the steamboat presence here, she remains a dynamic waterfront community of residents, sailors, boaters, watermen
and corporate citizens.
The Kinsale Foundation
Established in 1977 the Kinsale Foundation is supported by a variety of community leaders, corporate sponsors and citizens from Kinsale and beyond.
The Kinsale Foundation Museum houses a vast collection of historical documents and items from Kinsale’s history. These items have been donated by Museum members and friends, who want to ensure that future generations of Kinsale’s visitors and residents alike can learn from the faces, letters and voices of the past. “Kinsale’s ghosts are alive and well in the stories we share. Indeed they give us great advice by pondering what they would have done so long ago,” said Lynn Norris Museum Director.
The Museum building itself was donated to the Kinsale Foundation by Alice Moore whose husband had been one of the founding members of the Kinsale Foundation. Several of Virginia’s most successful small businesses call Kinsale home.
Potomac Supply was instrumental in furnishing the materials and support to restore the donated building and hire master tradesmen to do the plastering and carpentry work required.
The museum building represents one of only nine remaining commercial buildings from Kinsale’s heyday in the 1920s.
An original painting by renowned maritime artist John Barber, entitled Winter’s Eve on the Northern Neck and his original artist sketches hang in the museum. Purchased and donated by the Carden family of Kinsale, the painting and sketches depict the steamboat wharf at Kinsale, in the early 1900s. At one time, during the earlier 20th century, Kinsale was home to over 57 businesses, including three canneries.
Baseball has always had a stronghold in the Northern Neck. The museum contains the 1956 Chesapeake League Championship trophy, which was won by the team at Kinsale.
There are many examples of the generosity and sense of cooperation that is exemplified by the museum’s board, members and friends. The community is involved heavily involved by incorporating a host of special events that the whole family can enjoy.
The Museum sells all sorts of locally produced wares, from “crabby baskets” to handmade scented soaps that are produced especially for the museum.
A fixture of today’s Kinsale is the village square and large gazebo that has been the gathering place for festivals and celebrations since its inception. Annual fireworks celebrations are held each year on a hill overlooking the Marina. Dances, picnics and rubber duckie derbies are also a highlight. For more information on the people who have shaped Kinsale through the ages or on the events and mission of the Kinsale Foundation, visit them online at: www.kinsalefoundation.org.
Local Shops and Eateries
Although the taverns have long since vanished and the old hotels no longer greet patrons, Kinsale is home to several shops that are open on Saturdays from 10:00 am – 3:00 pm. The shops are within walking distance of Kinsale’s waterfront and outstanding world-class restaurants and eateries are close by.
Still known for her deep anchorage and pristine water views, Kinsale is home to an avid sailing/boating community. As in days of old there are fine furniture makers, builders, realtors, attorneys, architects, artists, engineers, agricultural enterprises, oyster and seafood packing companies, lumber products, a winery and so much more. Serviced by two marinas, a resort with lodging and exceptional dining nearby, Kinsale is a destination worth visiting by land or by sea. You are sure to be captivated by her straightforward and friendly charm.
Special Thanks to Lynn Norris, Dianne Brann and Regina Brayboy for graciously giving of their time to talk with me about Kinsale and the Kinsale Foundation. Special thanks also to those who have sought to preserve this remarkable little village on the Northern Neck, for future generations. A visit here is like going back in time. You won’t want to miss it! All aboard for Kinsale!
By Karin Andrews—contributing writer